7.6 out of 10
A collectathon platformer that brings a lot of fresh ideas to the genre — some of them executed really nicely and some of them lacking in the execution —, Yooka-Laylee is a fun, punny and inventive game that gets you to keep playing in spite of its shortcomings.
I first played YL in 2017, when as a backer I got access to it through Steam. I had played around with the toybox, and I was really excited about the game coming out, since its developers, Playtonic Games, were behind my favorite game of all time, Banjo-Kazooie (1998, N64), as well as behind heavy hitters like Donkey Kong Country and Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
I won’t lie about it: I was expecting to play a Banjo clone from the very start. The game had been advertised as a spiritual successor to Banjo, and Playtonic did everything to make it as similar to the bear and breegull as possible:
- Lots of puns
- Silly voices
- Lots of collectibles
- Googly eyes
- Even the music sounds like it came out of BK or Banjo-Tooie.
I had been waiting for a new Banjo platformer since Tooie came out in 2000, and this was shaping up to be exactly what I was looking for. YL was the first project I ever backed on Kickstarter.
So I started playing Yooka in 2017, with all my hopes up, and as I played my hopes started to be dashed. It looked like Banjo. It sounded like Banjo. It even played a bit like Banjo. But the camera controls felt weird, the cutscenes felt dragged out and all in all, it felt like it was trying too hard to be Banjo.
Wait a minute.
Wasn’t that exactly what I wanted? Wasn’t that what we all wanted as backers of the project? Just exactly what we had been promised? Why was I so put off by how hard the game was trying to be Banjo?
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
So after I expanded the first grand tome and got annoyed at being defeated by Rampo time and time again due to a variety of (I think) bugs, I threw my hands in the air and quit the game. I decided I would try it again once it came out in a console of my preference, in this case the Nintendo Switch.
Years passed and YL sat in my backlog waiting patiently.
Then, in 2019, Playtonic announced out of nowhere that they had a new game coming, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, a sidescrolling platformer that looked a lot like DKC.
It looked so good. Like, ridiculously so. I knew I had to play it when it came out.
But in order to do that, I told myself, I had to play and finish the first game. I have always liked to play games in a series in order, unless it’s super evident that I don’t need the knowledge of the first game in order to enjoy the second one. I knew that this one in particular wasn’t entirely dependant on the first one’s story, being described by the devs as “not exactly a sequel”, but still, I felt like I had to give the first YL a chance. Every time I saw it in my game library it felt like I had done it a disservice.
So I played it with a clean slate, trying not to think of the disappointment of my first play.
Now, 25 and a half hours later, I have 100% the game and my views on it have (mostly) changed radically, and I find that I actually thoroughly enjoyed it as what it is: a new game, its own thing, and not Banjo.
Beware, this review will contain spoilers.
Some things to know about Yooka-Laylee
As mentioned previously, YL is a collectathon, meaning that there’s a whole lot of little thingies to find and hoard throughout the game. These are:
- Quills – Used to purchase new moves. Collecting all of the quills in a world will net you a Pagie.
- Pagies – the main collectible of the game, comparable to Jiggies in Bano or Power Stars in Super Mario 64. Much like in those games, Pagies will help you unlock new worlds, and in YL they allow you to make a world bigger. More on this later.
- Butterflies – Running into them will replenish your Power Bar, and eating them with Yooka’s tongue will replenish your health. Clever and economical, but took me a while to get used to it and to use the correct ‘ingestion’ method for the right situation.
- Mollycool – When you hand one to Dt. Puzz she will transform you into a thing or creature using her DNRay.
- Play Coin – Let’s you play in Rextro’s arcade.
- Extra health – One hidden in the overworld, and one hidden in each world. Personally, I recommend finding them all.
- Power bar extender – does exactly what the name implies. One hidden in the overworld and one hidden in each world.
- Pirate treasure – One of these is hidden in each world, and it’s an “unofficial” collectible, since it is not reflected anywhere in the totals menu, similar to the stop & swoop feature in Banjo.
One of the interesting features of YL is the existence of the Power Bar, which depletes when you use some of the many moves that Trowzer will teach you.
Power bars are not a revolutionary feature, but it is an interesting one in YL, since it is an interesting way to handicap the player and make them be more mindful of what moves they use. For example, once you gain the flight ability in the later game (the animation for which makes me smile every time, as Yooka chugs Laylee into the air), it is tempting to just fly everywhere, making the way simpler. The Power bar, however, limits you in this abuse, and makes you be more careful if you’re just flying willy-nilly.
Now, whether this handicap works as well as intended, is up for debate. Personally, I believe the existence of Flight-Pads in the Banjo series made me more conscientious of when I wanted to fly to any spot in a level, for example, whereas having the flight ability ready for use whenever in YL makes me rely in it a bit too much. The developers knew this, and so there are multiple invisible in places where they knew you could skip a puzzle if you had the right ability.
This weakness is somewhat countered by the fact that you only get the flying move before the last level, which also turns it into a bit of a strength: it makes traversing previous levels faster, making backtracking way less tedious.
I think that the Power bar works well within the context of the game, and it’s an interesting tool that, if you use well, can make the game quite easy.
Another interesting feature of the YL series is the ability that the player has to completely change levels, seen in this first game as the option to expand the worlds into bigger worlds after trading a few Pagies.
Lastly there’s the Tonics, which you unlock by completing in-game challenges, and that can alter the game cosmetically, give Yooka Pants, make certain attacks stronger or consume less of the Power Bar than they would normally. I found there were 3 Tonics I used most: The Hunter Tonic, that made collectibles whistle at you so that you could find them faster; the Baller Tonic, that made the rolling ability consume Power slower; and the LiveWire Tonic, that made the PowerBar regenerate faster.
Tribalstack Tropics: the first hurdle
The first thing on my list would be to play through the parts of the game I had played before and get past them in order to actually see what the rest of the game looked like. So I went through the tutorial and through the first bits of Tribalstack Tropics, the first world, up until the boss fight with Rampo.
The first thing I noticed is that the controls and camera controls felt tighter than the first time I played it, and I recalled that there had been a series of patches released in the past two years. So that was fixed. There were still some collision and camera bugs (and features, too) that I didn’t like, but the game at least felt more solid than the first time around.
Those moments in which the camera kinda locks itself in an uncomfortable position without warning, like when jumping on the smiley/frowny platform in the main temple where you find Trowzer, really threw me off and made me make mistakes that I wouldn’t have made otherwise.
But all in all, I felt more comfortable with Yooka and Laylee’s first few moves, and I understood better how I was supposed to tackle the Rampo battle, beating him without too much trouble. Ok, good, first hurdle passed.
Now I explored the expanded tome.
I believe that one of YL’s most interesting features is that of expanding the worlds in order to truly see all the things they have to offer. But I don’t think that this feature was implemented to the best of its capabilities, since at many points I felt that the worlds had:
- A lot of empty spaces
- A lack of memorable landmarks
- No much ‘signage’ in the shape of quills that point you in the right direction.
I also think that at points the worlds’ expansions worked against the player, since there are some areas and Pagies that you can’t access until you have abilities acquired later in the game, such as the flight or the cloaking abilities, and given the lack of pointers and of memorable landmarks, finding these places again can be a hassle. This is all true especially of Tribalstack Tropics.
All that said, Tribalstack Tropics is an impressive level. It looks gorgeous, being one of the prettiest levels in the game. It also is a good introduction to all the common Pagie quests/challenges you will find throughout the game, such as the Pig Knights, Kartos, the Ghost Writers and the Pagies in Cagies, as well as Dr. Puzz and her DNRay and Rextro and his arcade. Things seem to be scattered without a lot of forethought, but it’s not the hardest level to navigate, in my opinion (that spot is reserved for Moodymaze Marsh).
Let’s talk about those things for a bit.
The Ghost Writers are a pretty good evolution of Banjo’s Jinjos, what with each one of them being very well hidden in each world and each one having a specific way of catching them. It adds a nice level of challenge to the game.
The Pig Knights, on the other hand, will send you on quests, but it does feel like there was some wasted potential to them.
Kartos is… well, an interesting stage in each world, definitely not my favorite. When you find and talk to Kartos, it will trigger a Minecart challenge, in which you have to jump and dash around a track in order to collect gems so that you can get a Pagie. It is a cool idea, definitely, but it is one of those things that feels like it was not as developed as well as it could have been. The controls feel wonky, and hard to get a hang of, and in later worlds you can lose gems if you get hit after finishing the course, which can feel very unfair if it makes you go through it again. Maybe I’m just bad at those sections, but I didn’t really get the hang of the controls until Capital Cashino, and even then I never felt like I mastered them.
Dr. Puzz works in a similar way to Mumbo Jumbo and Humba Wumba, needing for you to collect a special item in order to activate their transformation power. She needs a Mollycool, which activates her DNRay, and in this level it transforms you into a bouncy flower that can… pollinate things. Her transformations range from interesting and underused to weird/obnoxious and also underused. My favorites are the fish in Moodymaze Marsh and the Pirate Ship in Galleon Galaxy.
Rextro and his arcade are another instance of a thing that is a great idea that also feels incredibly not polished. All levels have a Play Coin hidden, and once you collect it you can use it to play Rextro’s game in that world. The minigames included are all great in concept, but most of the time they feel too easy and/or broken. I don’t know if this was to emulate cheap, bad arcades, or if the production time really didn’t allow for them to be better made. The most fun tend to be the more irritating, with the exception of the one in Galleon Galaxy: That one was fun and felt less broken than the others.
Ok. Now onto the worlds themselves.
Right off the bat it is clear that this world is a bit more thought out than Tribalstack Tropics.
All the areas that encompass this world are interesting in their own way. There’s the lake, the peak, the igloos, the grotto, and my personal favorite, the Icymetric Palace. +100 points for the pun, it had me grinning the whole time I played through it. Only bad thing about the palace is that you can only access it once you expand the tome. That and the transition animation that plays every time you enter or exit a room.
Sadly most of the level is quite empty. The lake is huge but not much can be found there, and once you collect the things it becomes a barren… ice water container.
Loved the quest for returning hats to the snowmen, as well as the aforementioned Icymetric Palace. Also the well hidden pirate treasure in the grotto, which overall was a fun platforming exercise.
The Glaciators mini game was fun. Not super inventive or anything, but definitely fun.
The Brrreeze Block boss was a great fight, creative and entertaining, but it honestly felt like Rampo on Ice, kind of. Less obnoxious, thanks to the lack of rolling logs.
This might be my least favorite level. I feel like there was a lot of potential in it, and while some areas realized it, most didn’t.
First, it was a nightmare to find myself in the level. I could never really figure out where exactly I was, in spite of some of the huge landmarks, such as that incredibly big house (that didn’t have much going for it) or the lake where you can turn into a school of piranhas?
The level itself was quite reminiscent of Mad Monster Mansion in the original Banjo Kazooie, with it being dark and moody, but MMM seems to have fine tuned how much content there was in relation to the size of the level.
Really enjoyed the pagie where you have to roll around several platforms, also the one where you turn switches on and off to control underwater fans, and also enjoyed the one where you de-shroom a garden for… shopping carts. Why are there shopping carts here, again? I don’t mind, I’m just curious.
The boss fight was cool. I love me a tentacle-based boss as much as the next guy, but unlike the past two bosses, Trey did feel like it could easily be cheesed.
I feel like the piranha school transformation could have used a couple of extra missions, maybe if we got some more range and were able to swim around more of the level, instead of just the one pond.
And the BeeBop mini game was super obnoxious. I wanted to like it, but I was mostly frustrated while playing it; it felt broken and unresponsive.
Visually, the least interesting world. All the bling and such looked somewhat outdated on the NSW, though I’ve seen it on the XBox and it actually looks really nice. Sadly, it suffers from also being sort of empty.
The helicopter transformation was fun, and I enjoyed shooting the missiles, though it felt sort of clunky when controlling it. Not good clunky, either.
Loved the variety in tasks in this level, and having the added goal of collecting tokens which you can then exchange for Pagies was quite fun and clever.
Kartos in this level was just. Atrocious. If you don’t jump at the end of the course, even though you’ve gotten the message of “finished”, you will get hit by fire and lose some points, which will make you start the course again. Super infuriating.
Right after you finish Kartos successfully you get to fight I.N.E.P.T, which I thught was a cool twist to the use of Kartos. I.N.E.P.Twas a great boss too. Super challenging, somewhat unfair, but actually quite fun. It was a good kind of frustrating.
The Hurdle Hijinx minigame was not bad, definitiely a step up from BeeBop, but still annoying. At this point I just found it a chore to have to beat the game twice in order to get the extra Pagie.
One of the most interesting worlds, by far, and in my opinion the crown jewel of the YL worlds. Design wise? Amazing. Love the color palette and little island sections. This was a really well designed world, though the only thing is that you can pretty much use the fly ability to get anywhere and avoid waiting in the travel tubes. This is at your own risk, though, since running out of energy will most certainly net you a death.
Most of the Pagies in this world were quite memorable, from racing the cloud again (nice throwback to world 1) to creating a blackhole in the middle of the sky. The guy stuck in the bathroom was quite hilarious as well.
And the boss. That was incredibly funny, I was not expecting to accidentally kill that old comet, and when Planette shows up I was rolling on the floor laughing (almost literally). That was such a good joke, it almost feels like by the end of the game the devs were starting to get their bearings and really get all the juice they could from the game. they knew the characters and the settings and could exploit this knowledge creatively to create a really, really memorable boss fight.
The Up N’ Nova minigame is my favorite from the bunch, and the one that feels the most polished.
The overworld is fun as heck. A lot of the time empty, but I can tell that the devs tried their hardest to really give Shipwreck Creek and Hivory Towers a lot of character, and I think that they really succeeded in that front.
Love all the little hidden sections and the huge landmarks (yeah, here there are landmarks that are recognizable and easy to navigate to), the sheer over-the-topness of it all. Getting pagies in the overworld was at times more fun than inside some of the worlds, and I did enjoy the fact that it was interconnected, just like the Isle O’ Hags in Banjo Tooie.
The final battle was good. If you have certain tonics equipped (slower stamina depletion, for example), it makes it less tricky and actually fun. That isn’t to say it is an easy battle: Capital Bee might be a fool, but he’s a tough fool, and the four stages of the fight are quite hard.
Alas, it gave me an incredible sense of satisfaction to finally beat him after many, many tries. I finally had made up for unjustly judging the game back in 2017.
I am glad I gave this game another chance.
Having grown up with Banjo as my favorite game (still is), the prospect of a spiritual successor made by a good number of the devs was mouth watering. I made the mistake of expecting something I wasn’t going to get from them: A new Banjo. And honestly, we should never expect a new Banjo from them.
I think Playtonic has more than proven itself to be able to create memorable worlds, characters, figths and game mechanics, and while they took a Pagie from their previous successes, Yooka-Laylee is its own thing. It’s disrespectful, I believe, to ask them to be something they’re not, and in this ignoring the actually good game we have in Yooka-Laylee.
Yes, it was broken and irritating in many stages, and there’s a lot of things that could have been polished had the team had more time to develop it. But taking into account they were not expecting to be such a success in Kickstarter, and that they delivered such a good spiritual successor in such a tight timeline, I think they did a fantastic job.
Granted, a lot of the QOL stuff that we enjoy now in YL is stuff that was added through updates and patches, but again, they were working on a tight schedule, and all those patches were part of the course of the original release; it’s not like they charged for that.
But overall YL has incredible music, some really good boss fights, some great dialogue, super memorable main characters and villains, decent world design and a lot of charm.
Plus, without YL we wouldn’t have Yooka Laylee and the impossible Lair, which I’ve already played and finished (not 100% though) and I can assure you it’s a masterpiece.
- Main Characters: 9/10
- World design: 7.1/10
- Tribalstack Tropics: 6.8/10
- Glitterglaze Glacier: 7/10
- Moodymaze Marsh: 6/10
- Capital Cashino: 7/10
- Galleon Galaxy: 8/10
- Overworld: 8/10
- Boss fights: 7.6/10
- Rampo: 7/10
- Brrreeze Block: 8/10
- Trev the Tenteyecle: 7/10
- I.N.E.P.T.: 7.8/10
- Planette: 8.6/10
- Capital Bee: 9/10
- Rextro: 7.1/10
- Kartos Karting: 7/10
- Glaciators: 8/10
- Bee Bop: 5/10
- Hurdle Hijinx: 7/10
- Up N’ Nova: 8.5/10
- Dialogue: 8/10
- Length: 8/10
- Music: 9/10
- Moveset: 7.8/10
- Overall fun: 7.9/10